Smoking: A Dream Come True

It’s settled: The release party for CURRENCY is going to be at The Hideout on May 16, from 5:00-7:00. A string of exclamation marks cannot express how unduly happy I am. During the last few months, it’s seemed that the securing of this particular venue has had about as many ups and downs as my decade-long struggle to get the novel published.

You know, I will admit that early on in the struggle to get published, I had dreams of worldly success. I dreamed that I might actually sell the book, as in get some real money from it. Not sick money, not mad money—even in my starry-eyed youth, I never set my sites too high—just some, enough. The number became more specific after my son was born. The year he turned two, the manuscript first made the agented rounds of the big houses and my employer started insisting that I work five days a week instead of the four I was barely managing. I figured if I could get an offer in the mid five figures, I’d have enough to take that job and shove it, at least for a year or so, at least for long enough to cobble together some kind of modestly remunerative professional writing life. And I was willing to hustle: I’d do magazine features! I’d happily teach undergraduates! Anything, as long as paying the bills and caring for my kid would not be at such hot war with me getting writing time.

Well, most of those dreams, even as dreams, have died. My job provides our family’s health insurance and most of our income, and I read plenty about the dismal economics of publishing today. I accept that there’s no peace treaty pending between my writing life and the rest of it, that I just have to get more skilled in the trenches, and I’ve become more convincing when I tell myself that economic justification isn’t necessary. No, it’s the deeper satisfaction of seeing a personal project come to fruition that I’m fueled by now—and it is deep, and I am fueled. But during the ups and downs of booking The Hideout, it’s become clear to me that there’s still one external reward I’ve been holding out for, one very clear image I have of success. It’s smoking a cigarette on The Hideout’s porch after having had a book release party. That, to me, will equal a dream come true.

Now, I quit smoking on December 31, 1998. And I have truly kicked the habit, save for the special occasion. (Ah, for the special occasion.) But the sense memory of nicotine haunts me like an old lover. Or like all the old lovers. All the old friends, the eras and places and discoveries of youth. CURRENCY, too, is wrapped up in this acrid cloud of nostalgia: I smoked my way through Southeast Asia and wrote most of the first draft during a time when I sat at my desk at home and puffed away. Who, even among smokers, lights up inside now? It’s a freaking part of history, like horse-drawn carts. To further out myself as old: I have also enjoyed cigarettes on domestic flights, in college dining halls, and at the desk of my first office job. And of course I smoked—a lot—in the more typical places: bars.

I realize that smoking in bars is no badge of wizened coddgerhood, that up until 2008 anyone in Chicago could. On the eve of the ban I really longed to go on a cigarette tour of the scenes of old crimes and say a proper good-bye, but I was six months pregnant. Missing this last boat has left me with an unresolved yearning, and The Hideout’s front porch is about as close as it gets to public indoor smoking: There’s not that lovely stale air, but you can simultaneously sit down, hold a beer, light a cigarette, and converse. At first unconsciously, I’ve come to believe that this comfortable compromise, this celebration of the old in the manner of the new, is the single best way to mark the occasion of CURRENCY’s publication.

I’m not so aged that I took up smoking without knowing it was poison. In a way, the paradox has always been part of a cigarette’s charm: This will kill you, but doesn’t it make the moment sublime? Ah, yes. Yes, it does. Let the beautiful sad music play. My youth is behind me. I can no longer live for the moment, for only myself. In more than one sense, I do not have much time. But I do have this family, this life, and soon, I will have published a novel. A single cigarette still tastes divine.

And if it’s raining or something? If there’s construction on Wabansia and The Hideout’s porch is torn up? If I have bronchitis, or the cops shut the deal down because there is probably some ordinance against it? Well . . . could happen. We’ll see.

But, won’t you please join us at The Hideout on May 16? Which, by the way, is a request I can only make thanks to my friend Martha Bayne, who, in addition to being a stalwart smoking partner since the time when ten dollars would buy you a carton of Camel Lights, also knows how to make all kinds of good things happen there.

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Books: Revisiting the Golden Triangle

In terms of my ever-lengthening life, I didn’t spend much time in Southeast Asia. Not much time in Thailand, not much time in Vietnam, barely any time in Laos. And the time I spent there was so long ago. But once I returned, I had such a craving for those places, such an urge to understand more, to experience more, to revisit and linger. One way to do that is by writing. So I wrote stories, and essays, and then, endlessly, a novel set in Thailand. Another way to learn and to visit, of course, is by reading. Here are a few of my favorite books that have taken me back to Thailand and its borders regions. I recommend them to anyone gearing up to go or anyone who wants to remember.

Fieldwork, by Mischa Berlinski

A great read for anyone interested in Northern Thailand, this story within a story explores the tensions between a hill tribe based on the Lisu, an anthropologist who sets up permanent residence with them, and missionaries who have worked in the golden triangle region for generations. There’s a murder mystery and a mysterious cross-cultural romance, a dysfunctional-family back story and an expatriot’s-dilemma frame story, and through it all, Berlinski demonstrates a depth of knowledge about multitudes of different worlds with a grace that left me awe-struck. I’m fascinated by Southeast Asia’s cultural complexity and America’s recentish involvement in it, and I’m aware that my fascination—or any outsider’s—raises issues of its own. He gets at all that, wraps it around a riveting plot, and makes you feel like you’re there. Man, I want to go read this book again right now.

Burmese Looking Glass, by Edith T. Mirante

If you, like me, enjoy reading about people who are as brave, cool, and morally pure as you are in your dreams, well, Edith Mirante is just such a person. She’s written a book that should be of interest to any intrepid traveler with a conscious, and especially those who’ve been to the Thai-Burmese border region and have wondered about what they saw.  Mirante is a real-life “human-rights pirate” who visited Thailand as an artist in the 80s and became radicalized when she learned how the Burmese were suffering under their oppressive government. She took huge personal risks to document the situation of the hill tribes living close to the Thai-Burmese border, sneaking between countries, traveling deep into the jungle, and visiting dangerous characters in an attempt to get at a truth that she could share, even when people didn’t want to hear it. (She implicates the U.S. to some degree.) Since she did her work around the time that much of Fieldwork takes place, this is a good nonfiction counterpart to that novel.  It’s also a thrilling book on its own, and it’s a tonic to read about someone who managed to take dramatic action in the face of the kinds of entrenched misery that can make many travelers feel hopeless.

The Latehomecomer, by Kao Kalia Yang

The suffering of hill tribe groups seems to know no bounds. In this artful and heart-wrenching memoir, Yang tells the story of her Hmong family, who escaped Laos to find themselves in a series of refugee camps in Thailand before eventually moving to the United States. Yang depicts clearly and tenderly life in Hmong villages before, during, and after the Vietnam war; life in the refugee camps where she spent her first seven years; and life as an immigrant. The description of her family crossing the Mae Kong river was particularly harrowing for me. I read it while nursing my infant daughter, and when they made the crossing, Yang’s sister was newborn and sick, and her mother was nursing and infected. I remember sitting on the banks of that same river very near where they crossed, drinking beer and admiring the romantic view. I remember riding down that river in an inner tube, laughing, playing on a mud bank. How little most Americans know about Hmong involvement in the Vietnam war, and what a high price those involved have paid for it. But Yang’s book is about so much more than this. I can almost guarantee that anyone would love it.

Gold by the Inch, by Lawrence Chua

Well, Thailand is not all hill tribes and jungle trails. This novel about a gay Thai expatriot who returns to Bangkok to heal from a heartbreak and becomes enthralled with a male prostitute is both stylistically sophisticated and as drug-strew, dimly lid, and lurid as you’d expect a novel about Bangkok nightlife and sex-selling to be. And it hits the themes close to my heart: the grey areas around cultural imperialism, the economic subtext of so much, the complexity of sexual transactions, and the intersection of the personal and political. Not everyone’s idea of beach-reading because of its challenging prose and bleak world-view, it’s an interesting lens through which to view Bangkok.

CURRENCY news

With CURRENCY‘s release date only about two months away, I feel like I’m at the tail end of a veeeeeeeeeeeery long pregnancy, and labor has just begun. The final proof has been completed. Events are being set up. Preorder is available. A Facebook page has been created. (Please become a fan.)  And thanks to Max Wentzel, The Eternals, and Lisa Meehan Williams, there’s even a book trailer posted on YouTube. It’s really going to happen!

Here’s the jacket copy:

Piv and Robin are not such an unlikely  match. Piv, a small-time hustler in Thailand,  and Robin, a twenty-something back-packer from the United States, have always dreamed big dreams. What begins as a traveler’s affair in Sukhothai quickly intensifies, and the young lovers envision an idyllic future together, traveling the world. Their plans are thwarted in Bangkok, however, when Robin runs out of money, her credit is denied, and she may have to leave Asia and Piv behind. Desperate, Piv turns to Abu, a charismatic businessman acquaintance, for help. Thus begins Piv and Robin’s foray into exotic animal smuggling. Soon they find themselves amid an international crime ring that may have even darker underworld ties stretching from Kenya to Russia. Under the scrutiny of the traffickers who employ them, with investigators hot on their trail, and idealistic dreams unraveling fast, Piv and Robin must face the consequences of their individual struggles for identity, as well as the cost of their mutual desires.

“From skins to skin to golden Buddhas, CURRENCY is a moving and lucid look at how beauty can fall prey to our very love of it.”
Alex Shakar, author of The Savage Girl